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Jonathan Bradley of Belfast Telegraph (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Why Laporte's new Club World Cup idea already faces a whole heap of problems

Jonathan Bradley


 

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Big change: The success enjoyed by Mark McCall and Saracens could not be replicated under Bernard Laporte’s proposal to axe the European Cup

Big change: The success enjoyed by Mark McCall and Saracens could not be replicated under Bernard Laporte’s proposal to axe the European Cup

�INPHO/Andrew Fosker

Mark McCall

Mark McCall

�INPHO/Billy Stickland

Big change: The success enjoyed by Mark McCall and Saracens could not be replicated under Bernard Laporte’s proposal to axe the European Cup

It has, let's face it, not been a particularly good week of PR for sports as a whole.

Increasingly it can feel like the brief interludes of games were the only redeeming feature of the all-consuming, 24/7 machine.

Predictably, without even that respite over the last month or so, it's all been a bit of a mess. Premier League football has, as is so often its wont, stood out even in an undistinguished crowd.

The majority of stars are surely like Harry Maguire, who is orchestrating a large-scale charity donation from the wages of himself and his Manchester United colleagues, or Toby Alderweireld, who provided nursing homes and hospitals with tablets to stay in contact with family members, but it's the exceptions like Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker who grab the attention and beggar belief. Or at least when their bosses aren't doing it for them.

The fact that Liverpool were so widely praised only for going back on a frankly egregious misuse of emergency measures shows you just where we've set the bar, while the u-turn on Merseyside left Spurs' Daniel Levy to plough a lonely furlough.

With all that going on elsewhere, rugby was left to scrutinise itself.

It was late on Monday evening when EPCR issued their response to Bernard Laporte's grand proposal to bin the European Cup in favour of an annual World Club Cup competition.

"EPCR does not believe it appropriate to highlight such discussions while the public health crisis due to Covid-19 continues, and currently, the organisation's focus is on attempting to reschedule the knock-out stages of the 2019/20 tournaments subject to government and local authority directives," concluded their short statement.

As self-policing goes, it was as effective as any shoeing on the wrong side of a ruck. Laporte's interview with Midi Olympique on Sunday - outlining what would be a 20-team tournament every summer, room in the calendar for which would be found by scrapping the established European competitions - must be viewed in the context of the upcoming World Rugby elections where Laporte, a three-times Champions Cup winning coach with Toulon, is to be Bill Beamount's running mate, hoping to replace the oft-outspoken former Pumas scrum-half Agustin Pichot as vice chairman.

As trial balloons go, this one had more than a few holes. 

How would player welfare concerns be overcome if top players were to play a World Cup-style seven games in a six-week tournament every single season?

How would the different time-zones in Europe, South Africa, Australasia, Japan and the USA mesh to make a suitable schedule?

What would the majority of club teams - those who don't qualify - be doing during this period?

Where would the Lions, and its crucial revenue, fit in this revamped schedule?

These logistics would seem, at the very least, to render the idea somewhat pie in the sky but to focus on them misses the point.

The situation would put you in mind of Jeff Goldblum's character's denunciation of Jurassic Park - "so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Laporte's cited motivation is naturally financial, dismissing the Champions Cup and its near £50 million worth of revenue generated as not nearly lucrative enough. But to be sure of making money, the three key stakeholders here have to be fans, sponsors and television execs. As Laporte noted, none have been consulted.

Naturally, there would be cross-continent fan interest surrounding a match-up between Leinster and Crusaders.

But what about the Blue Bulls against the Seattle Seawolves? Ulster against the Kobelco Steelers? Every year?

Even in these sports-starved times, that's somewhat harder to imagine. For a tournament that would presumably have to be played out entirely at a neutral site to negate the mammoth travel involved, how many would come through the turnstiles?

The vast majority of partisan supporters could not afford such an annual expense in the same way many budget for a Heineken Cup weekend away in France, while neutral interest can hardly be counted upon.

Think 28-and-a-half thousand watching a final between Toulouse and Perpignan in Dublin or, only five years ago, tickets essentially given away in swathes to watch brilliant Toulon and Clermont sides go head to head in London.

The early success, and indeed survival, of the European Cup was in no small part down to the colour and vibrancy that surrounded the games. Conversely, nothing turns off television companies and sponsors like half empty stadiums. As the cautionary tale of revamping the old Heineken Cup into the Champions Cup shows, new and shiny doesn't necessarily mean better or richer and the early response to this kite-flying can at best be described as decidedly lukewarm. 

After the ill-fated Nations Championship concept was abandoned last June, for the second time in a year some prominent decision makers in rugby seem to think financial security can be achieved through games it's not clear the fans actually want to watch, never mind the neutrals.

Realistic or not, such proposals are a reminder of one thing at least, change of some sort is coming. When they do, it's unlikely to be a particularly seamless or edifying process. As EPCR themselves noted, now is perhaps not the time to be doing it in public.

Belfast Telegraph